- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla.

Former convict Vikki Hankins had the misfortune of being freedfrom prison during the worst recession since the Great Depression. While serving an 18-year sentence for a nonviolent federal drug conviction, she was assured of taxpayer-funded food and shelter.

Now on the outside after her first offense, she lives in a motel room and struggles to find work.

Like thousands leaving prison amid the economic slump, Hankins could be helped by the Second Chance Act, a program approved by Congress to help nonviolent offenders get a new start on life. Signed by President Bush last April, the Second Chance Act is designed to help former convicts get jobs, housing and counseling. But congressional backers worry the act may not even see its first dollar as billions in taxpayer money are being shunted to the nation’s economic bailout.

“I want to establish a life for myself. But where is my home going to be? What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” said Ms. Hankins, 40.

Like many former inmates, Hankins wants a house, a job and a car. Since her release last spring, she has lived in Orlando-area motels and has been turned down dozens of times for jobs in fast-food restaurants serving the Disney World throngs.

Potential employers have been scared off by her past, and she is one of many people looking for work in Florida. The state’s jobless rate hovers above 8 percent, topping the national average.

Ms. Hankins does handle administrative work with a group started by a retired federal corrections officer, called Advocate 4 Justice, which lobbies lawmakers to reinstate federal parole, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. In exchange, the group helps pay her weekly motel bills and some basics such as toiletries and clothing. Still, she hasn’t made enough to buy a car or rent an apartment.

“In many ways,” Ms. Hankins said, “it’s harder than being incarcerated.”

Lawmakers thought the Second Chance Act could help whittle down some of the $50 billion-plus spent on offenders behind bars. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.3 million people in the U.S. are held in jails, state lockups or federal facilities.

The Second Chance law won wide bipartisan support in 2008. Lawmakers anticipated setting aside $165 million a year in grants to nonprofit organizations, religious groups and states to help prisoners re-enter society, but so far no funding has been approved.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat, said funding for Second Chance wasn’t part of the stimulus bill; instead, it is expected to be in the annual appropriations package.

Those who work with felons say grant money from Second Chance would support programs already in place or fund new ones that would help keep tens of thousands of former offenders from going back to overcrowded prisons, saving taxpayer money in the long run.

“In this economy, many of these individuals are going to be left out, left behind,” said Mr. Davis, who sponsored the Second Chance Act. “At the end of the day, they will be just as unemployed as before.”

Backers say the Second Chance Act is needed now more than ever because money for state or community-funded programs is tight.

“We have to work really hard to make this happen,” said Jessica Nickel of the D.C.-based Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. “These people are coming home to our community, and having a job and a place to live are critical if you want them to be upstanding, taxpaying citizens.”

Kemba Smith, 37, of Washington, D.C., is a former inmate who, like Ms. Hankins, received a long sentence for a first-time drug offender.

“Having a record, especially a drug conviction, does limit one’s ability to move forward. How long should someone’s past follow them?” said Ms. Smith, whose sentence was commuted by a 2000 presidential pardon.

Upon her release, Ms. Smith was hired as an administrative assistant by a law firm that was familiar with her story. She has since become a motivation speaker and educator, and a Hollywood producer has optioned her story.

But the chief of the federal probation office in Tampa, Elaine Terenzi, said not all former offenders have Ms. Smith’s drive. Ms. Terenzi hopes the Second Chance Act funds will flow to former convicts who face enormous obstacles after prison.

“People who have served 10-, 15-year terms, many of their expectations are no longer feasible,” she said. “Everything is so different.”

Even those who served short sentences are finding their criminal record is an employment barrier.

Donald Carter, 57, of Cincinnati thought he would have no problem getting a job after three months’ behind bars on a felony child-support charge. He had worked for years helping the mentally disabled, but spent months searching for jobs in and out of the social work field after his June release.

So Mr. Carter enrolled in a Cincinnati program that is already trying some of the concepts of the Second Chance Act and could qualify for funding under the law. Program leaders taught Mr. Carter interviewing skills, job-hunting tactics and wrote letters for to a judge who wondered why Mr. Carter hadn’t found employment.

He landed a job in December with a defense contractor. “I probably would have self-destructed had it not been for those services,” he said. “I probably would have just been another statistic.”

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